American Robin [Fiep de Bie]

Winter birding

The Nature of PEI | by Gary Schneider

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There are days in December when it is difficult to venture outside of a warm house. The winter winds are howling, some form of snow/ice/sleet is threatening to knock you off balance, your car doesn’t ever seem to warm up. Winters on PEI have become a different beast than we experienced thirty years or forty years ago.

I remember participating in a Christmas bird count in the Montague area many years ago where we wouldn’t even venture out of the car. The windows got rolled down just enough to check for birds at each stop, then they were quickly rolled up. It was brutal out. Yet I love birding in the winter. Some of my favourite winter memories of PEI are watching razorbills and red-throated loons at East Point, horned larks and rough-legged hawks in Earnscliffe, and American robins and Bohemian waxwings at Cape Bear.

You’ll want to have access to large quantities of hot coffee or tea. And snacks are never an option—they’re essential. If you wear glasses as I do, you’ll need something dry to regularly wipe your glasses and the lenses of any viewing or photographic equipment.  And some warm and windproof clothing, including footwear.

There. That’s all the warnings you’ll get. Now the fun starts.

While all birders love the spring migration—where on PEI we’ll regularly see an array of warblers with lovely colours and songs—birds in the winter are quite special. A tougher lot, for sure. Anyone can travel north in the summer. But birds that move south in the winter are the real troopers.

It is true that you often have to work harder to see birds in the winter, but it is worth it. Feeders can be wondrous places in winter, especially if you consistently put out a variety of food and you have suitable bird-friendly habitat nearby. A sighting of an evening grosbeak, a pine siskin, or an American tree sparrow can brighten my day. Hearing their calls and watching them fly from feeders to trees and shrubs makes even a dreary day much more bearable.

Another interesting aspect of winter birding is that it is often a lesson in patience. I’ve been in dead-silent woodlands wondering where all the birds are. Suddenly, the forest is alive with birds, with black-capped chickadees, boreal chickadees, red-breasted nuthatches, purple finches and dark-eyed juncos deciding to forage around you. It is quite magical—a flurry of activity and calls, and then a few minutes later they can move on to neighbouring feeding grounds and you’re back in silence.

Because of the lack of leaves on the deciduous trees, the movement of birds in the winter is much easier to pick out. The tiny brown creeper feeding on the bark of a red maple tree or the downy woodpecker flitting from one dead balsam fir to another are very easy to spot. Your eyes quickly become accustomed to noticing sharp movements that during the summer months would have been hidden amongst the foliage.

Winter birding would not be complete for me without participating in at least one Christmas bird count. These are great events where you can learn more about what birds are around and also to either catch up with old friends or make new ones. The four counts, dates and contact information—in case you’d like to participate—are as follows: East Point on December 18 (dwaine.oakley@gmail.com); PEI National Park on December 19 (jdmcaskill@pei.sympatico.ca); Hillsborough on December 27 (jdmcaskill@pei.sympatico.ca); and Montague on January 2 (scsinclair@pei.sympatico.ca).

Happy birding everyone, and stay safe and warm.

Gary SchneiderThe Nature of PEI